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Into the Realms of Reality: Docmakers Traverse Genres

By Patrick Crawford

The public's insatiable appetite for "reality" entertainment is transforming the market for documentary talent. Even professionals with the purest documentary film pedigrees now actively pursue parallel careers in the frankly commercial world of reality productions.  For many, if not most, this crossover is both welcomed and natural. For established documentarians such as Kristine Lacey, reality work "pays the bills" in between documentary projects and can provide much needed financing for future projects. Lacey is currently making a documentary about the 1956 Summer Olympic water polo match between Hungary and the Soviet Union while working on E!'s How Do I Look?.

The ability of documentary professionals to successfully contribute to reality projects may be due, as Lacey observes, with the simple fact that documentary filmmakers are used to "having to wear many hats." According to Sienna McLean LoGreco, whose documentary credits include Still Revolutionaries and who has worked on numerous realty programs on Discovery Channel, TLC, Discovery Health and Animal Planet, among others, it is decidedly not due to any special demand for truth-tellers in the reality market. Nevertheless, reality work now sustains many documentarians with substantial opportunities to ply their trade in rewarding and challenging contexts. As Lacey puts it, "Telling people's stories is what it's all about. It's about them--about the character.  That's why you always do the best job possible."

Some self-described "purists," acculturated more in the norms of the documentary film, may bristle at the notion that their reality stints are a qualitative extension of their documentary work. Such sentiments may not be universal. As Werner Herzog has pointedly maintained, "By dint of declaration, the so-called cinéma vérité is devoid of vérité. It reaches a merely superficial truth, the truth of accountants."

Most documentary filmmakers, however, still retain at least the pretense of telling it like it is. Thus, without irony, LoGreco can caution, "Reality can be highly manipulative." Indeed, those on the inside now openly acknowledge the fiction of reality product without embarrassment. To paraphrase Lacey's paraphrase of one extremely well-regarded reality TV producer, "There is nothing real in what we do."

What is de rigeur in reality work may indeed be a gross violation of documentary norms. Few documentary filmmakers would admit, for instance, to feeding pre-scripted lines, poaching a tear shot from an unrelated event to fabricate emotional response, strategic "casting" to ensure a volatile ensemble, or detailed pre-scripting of day-to-day action. In Lacey's documentary work, for instance, "If someone appears rambling, you may re-edit to get it clearer. But you wouldn't ask them to repeat it differently."   

To successfully crossover, Lacey observes, the documentarian has to first overcome a "level of discomfort." The successful crossover represses her documentary instincts. "Sometimes my purity hurts me," Lacey reveals. "Sometimes I want to let it play out and simply respect my subject." The angst is not only technical. "My grandfather thought the WWF [World Wrestling Federation] was real," Lacey notes. "I wonder if the public knows the difference?!?" Nevertheless, reality work in some ways informs and shapes the documentary filmmaker, inspiring new ideas, strategies and projects. In her future projects, Lacey still wants to "learn everything about a subject," but hopes to "approach it in a more entertaining manner."

Whether and how the crossover experience will affect the documentary genre as a whole is, of course, impossible to predict. One thing is for sure: many documentarians would love to find a way to produce more blockbusters like Fahrenheit 9/11. There is no accounting for taste, however, and even the established success of reality television remains something of a mystery. In LoGreco's frank assessment, "There just seems to be two types of people: those who like the reality stuff and those who don't."

Documentaries and reality productions do share relatively low production costs.  Apparently, the reality actors sign themselves away for no more than, in Lacey's words, an "extension of their 15 minutes of fame." Compared to the inevitable hapless victims of a documentary filmmaker's take, such narcissists can count themselves lucky. In the final analysis, Herzog may be right that we are, regardless of our particular pretenses, ultimately responsible for the truths we convey.


Patrick Crawford is a tax lawyer in a major California firm who, in the Los Angelino spirit, is also a writer.